Science

Are Vegans and Vegetarians More Depressed?

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Transcript:

Here we go again: a new study has found that vegetarians and vegans are more likely to have depression and anxiety compared to meat eaters. Feeling sad? Eat a pile of dino nugs! Okay, I said that ironically but just looking at dinosaur nuggets actually does cheer me up and I don’t even eat chicken. And thinking about that led me to search to see if any company is making vegan dino nugs and I am DELIGHTED to report that I found this incredibly on-topic article from VegNews announcing that Quorn (with a “Q”, the company, not with a “c” like the vegetable or with a “k” like the nu metal band) has just this year launched “Roarsomes” in UK shops. The vegan dino nugs were apparently produced in response to a drunken request from a customer in 2018 who emailed the company “dame [sic] dudes, I just really want some dino nuggets to cure my depression.”

Quorn sent @trashgremlin97 a gift box of dino nugs on April 15, but the very next day trashgremlin97 tweeted about their worsening mental health so it definitely wasn’t an immediate cure to their depression. But who knows? Maybe it helped, or maybe the only thing that would have actually helped is real dino nugs made from real dinosaurs. And by “dinosaurs” I mean chickens. Because chickens are dinosaurs.

But back to the study at hand: are meat eaters more psychologically healthy than those who abstain? And if so, is it because of the meat?

Well, this study only tries to answer one of those, and it isn’t really a study — it’s a meta analysis, because there have been thousands and thousands of these studies over the years that try to figure out the connection between what we eat and how our brains feel, with many of the biggest, most splashy studies finding that yeah, vegans and vegetarians are more depressed and more anxious than meat eaters. This paper looked at 20 studies that met the inclusion criteria, and found that the bigger, more rigorous the study, the more substantial the difference in the mental health of meat eaters and abstainers.

They specifically write “no conclusions regarding causality are supported,” so they don’t know if abstainers have bad mental health because they abstain from meat, if there’s some separate factor at play, or if it’s just a coincidence. That hasn’t stopped outlets from running with causal headlines in the past of course, like when Women’s Health wrote about the “The Scary Mental Health Risks of Going Meatless,” as if eating a bean burrito is going to turn you into Michael Myers.

Let me say this: it is absolutely possible that abstaining from meat could lead to mental health issues for some people. While vegetarians and pescetarians like myself don’t have any trouble getting all our necessary nutrients from the food we eat, vegans can miss out on vitamin B-12 as it is a product of animal sources. Luckily, vegans can now pick up supplements or food that has been enriched with B12 to avoid a deficiency but if they don’t know about it or think it’s not a big deal, they can end up suffering an array of problems including (drumroll please) depression and other mental issues.

Vegans and vegetarians are also at a slight risk of an Omega 3 deficiency. Omega 3 fatty acids are absolutely crucial for brain development and function, so if you aren’t getting enough you could be at risk of depression. There are lots of plant-based foods that have omega 3s like walnuts, flaxseeds, and soybeans, but the easiest way to get them is from fish. So again, if a person who abstains from eating fish doesn’t know to up their intake of these other foods, they might have poorer mental health. Also, scientists are still figuring out if which fatty acid you consume matters to your health, since vegetarians and meat eaters tend to take in the same amount of one type (ALA) but two others, EPA and DHA are “low in vegetarians and virtually absent in vegans.” Is that bad? Maybe! Maybe not. Our bodies are complicated little systems that evolved to eat a variety of foods, so when you cut out one entire chunk, whether that’s meat or fruit or anything blue or whatever, there might be issues that crop up here and there.

So yes, it’s possible that a person’s diet may affect their mental health. When I went to my doctor for anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication, he tested my blood and found that I had very low levels of vitamin D, which can be caused by diet but in this case my doctor said it was most likely caused by living in Buffalo during the winter and not having the sun touch my skin in many months. I don’t recommend it. But he also pointed out that vitamin D deficiency can lead to fatigue and depression. That can also be caused by living in Buffalo during the winter, but I digress. A good doctor will make sure you don’t have a deficiency like that before putting you on medication to treat the resulting depression.

But these deficiencies aren’t super common, nor are they necessarily limited to those who abstain from meat. What else might explain these results, then? Well! I have a few ideas.

For a start, many of these studies were conducted in the US, where an absurd minority of people are vegetarian or vegan, like less than 5%. Being almost any kind of minority is going to be tougher on people’s mental health, with some worse than others. Like, is it as tough as being black or gay or trans? No way. But you still have to deal with things like parental confusion, snarky insults from coworkers, annoyance at restaurants, and an alarming number of ignorant questions that force you to justify what you eat every day. Who wouldn’t be a bit anxious or depressed about all that?

Here’s another thought: maybe vegans and vegetarians tend to abstain from meat in part because they’re more educated about the nature of how our society operates, and particularly the horrific conditions that are central to the production of our food. There’s the knowledge of the way intelligent, amazing animals like pigs and cows are treated, and there’s also the knowledge of how meat consumption is exacerbating climate change. I’ve made this argument in past videos but it’s worth repeating: my dog does not experience depression and anxiety over the way humans are destroying the Earth, but that doesn’t mean that I would want to trade brains with him. Ignorance is bliss! Another recent study found that American kids aged 6 and 7 overwhelmingly believe that chicken, pigs, and cows should NOT be eaten. They’re so divorced from where their food comes from that 40% of kids aged 4 to 7 said bacon is a vegetable. They’re very happy eating their dino nugs — how are they going to feel if and when they’re ever forced to confront what’s actually in them? Charlton Heston’s pals were super happy eating Soylent Green but he had some pretty severe psychological problems. I wonder why? 

Finally, the result of this meta analysis may have nothing to do with meat abstention at all, but a third thing that connects abstainers to anxiety: a number of studies suggest that vegans and vegetarians are more empathetic than meat eaters. A number of other studies suggest that empathetic people are more likely to experience high anxiety. So, it’s not that abstaining from meat causes anxiety, but that being empathetic causes one to be more likely to abstain from meat and to experience more anxiety.

So, when you inevitably see more fear-mongering about this research, not that it could be any one of a variety of causes, or all of them together. And go get your vitamin levels checked! Especially if you’re a vegan living in Buffalo. You need all the anti-depressant help you can get.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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One Comment

  1. Runners who wear more expensive running shoes have higher injury rates that those who don’t.
    Causality should probably be investigated…for injury rather than cost.
    Thus, it would seem reasonable that anxious, depressed, people are more likely to seek dietary solutions. And veganism is promoted for everything from obesity to cancer…and Covid.

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